The U.S. Department of Energy is fighting back against China's stranglehold on global rare earth mineral supplies--or at least throwing money at the problem--by awarding $120 million to Ames Laboratory to set up a new Energy Innovation Hub aimed at shoring up American energy security. Officially titled the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), the DOE lab will roll the resources of more than a dozen national labs, universities, and industry partners into one place in an effort to make rare earths less rare.
Rare earths are a collection of 17 elements that are valued for their unique properties. They are used in the production of everything from computer hard drives and smartphones to wind turbines, batteries, and precision weapons systems. They are found in computer displays and light bulbs and communications infrastructure. We use them to refine oil and build cars. In other words, we need refined rare earth minerals and China owns 95% of the global market for them--and isn't always willing to share. Ramping up domestic supplies could take more than a decade. The CMI has the un-enviable job now of figuring out a solution to this problem.
How? CMI is taking a three-pronged approach. First, it will try to diversify the supply by bring new sources online. Second, CMI will support research into developing substitutes for rare earths, something that to date has shown marginal promise (particularly in Japan, the world's largest importer of rare earths and on-again-off-again geopolitical thorn in China's side). And finally, improve and encourage reusing and recycling of existing rare earths that are often thrown out with the consumer products they are packed inside.
Hopefully between these three efforts something will click. China has already rattled the rare earths saber on a couple of occasions, reminding its global customers that it alone can shut off the spigot to large segments of their manufacturing economies. It has yet to decisively shut off rare earth exports completely, but that could theoretically change at any time.
Wouldn't Asteroid Mining solve this rare earth mineral shortage issue? There are thousands upon thousands of asteroids in our solar system, many of which are close enough to be mined or dragged into Earths orbit; I don't know the exact numbers, but I know for a fact there are plenty. So, I don't see what the problem is? Put money into asteroid mining and go do it. Then we won't have to bother with China. Problem solved? And don't tell me it's not possible. If people have the will to do something, it will be done.
Rare earth metals really are not all that rare. The US has large quantities of most of them, we just don't have the mines set up in order to mine them.
Mining is expensive. If you are prepared to pay enough new sources of rare earths will be explored and mined. At the present price only Chinese interest mine them. Guarantee a better price and you will get more than enough.
sounds like goverment wasting money again. Mine tailings and smelting slag are totally full of rare earths in cocentrate. Why don't they just extract them from these sources first? We are mining are garbage dumps for recyclables, why not other waste dumps?
@ asteroid mining
It might help... in 15-20 years. I believe the estimates on bringing one into orbit or like 2025 or 2030 something like that. I believe the purpose of this government entity is to help in the nearer term, the next 5-10 years. After that domestic mines and such should be up and running and if we are lucky a asteroid will be on the way too. (into orbit, not to kill us lol)
Once the need becomes important enough, our government will tweak the tax incentive laws and the tweak the environment conversation\pollution mining laws just right for the mining industry, then magically, suddenly there will be plenty of Rare-Earth minerals.
It's nice to see that my fellow commenters are smarter than the DOE. On second thought, it's infuriating to think that the average commenter on PopSci is smarter than most people in the federal government. Proof yet again that you can randomly put together any 3 letters from the alphabet and come up with the acronym for a federal agency that we could easily do without. Heaven forbid anyone suggests slowing automatic funding increases of these sacred cows to "only" 4% a year (much more than inflation) instead of 6 or 7 percent; the clowns in Congress start screaming about "Draconian cuts." I wish someone would increase my pay by "only" 4% a year. Meanwhile our president doesn't think the federal government has a spending problem; he wants to increase spending even more. Anyone see an impending crisis?
How about we take that $120 million and give it to profitable businesses to help them grow and hire more employees? They know how to use money productively, unlike virtually everyone on the federal payroll. Pay a consultant a couple thousand bucks to tell the DOE that the problem with the scarcity of rare earths will be fixed by the private sector without any help from the government, just like the oil shortage and every other shortage we've ever faced.
It's not true that China has control of 95% of the world's rare earth mineral reserves. In fact, there is a company in Colorado (MolyCorp) that has begun production of rare earths from their massive US reserves.
We use rare earths for a reason. These elements are used to make electrical devices that are very efficient. I doubt that giving the US DOE $120M to spend on figuring out if there are better materials to replace rare earths will ever produce any results.
These sorts of decisions are best left to the private sector. When the market supply/demand imbalance for rare earth materials becomes great enough, the private sector will quickly step in and solve the problem, at no cost to US taxpayers.
As many people here have already commented, rare earths are not very rare. But heavy rare earths are often found with thorium, and it becomes an unwanted byproduct.
There is a YouTube video I edited on this subject called THE THORIUM PROBLEM. I'd certainly appreciate PopSci critiquing it as sort of a peer-review process.
I'm focused on Molten Salt Reactors as an energy solution, and THE THORIUM PROBLEM is a by-product of that work... you'll find many folks who are keen on MSR to also know about REE as such mines are the easiest source of thorium to fuel such reactors.
It is my understanding that there is no rare earth shortage. University of Southern Florida reconfirmed previous studies showing they throw away 22,000 tons of rare earths every year due to thorium content. With a 50 percent recovery, that covers 100% of the USA consumption needs.
I hope PopSci would be willing to look into this question... is/does throrium regulation impede development of heavy rare earths in North America? And, if so, how dangerous is thorium?
United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) just submitted a report observing linear no-threshold dose hypothesis (LNT) does not apply to doses less than 10 rem (0.1 Sv).
So if the thorium found with heavies has a half-life of 14 billion years (barely radioactive)... it can't be absorbed by the body (not water soluble)... and is a possible solution to both non-GHG energy production and is the reason USA is in a rare-earth fix...
...It seems like a critically important subject for both hi-tech manufacturing and energy independence.
There you go making sense and illustrating facts. This will just make PoPSCi brain hurt. PoPSCi is more about popular and science or in other words 'sensationalism' and the 'excitement' of science, not science itself. I appreciate your comments gordonmcdowell and I so much enjoy the geewiz of PoPSC. I would just not use PoPSCi as a reference on a term paper, lol.
What a joke and a tragedy... This is just a big fat political turd to Ames Lab. DoE’s previously stated goal is to “find substitutes”, not to solve the structural failure in the U.S. value chain.
It is impossible for Ames Lab to resolve the rare earth supply and value chain crisis – and we would be fools to believe that they could. Why not put 120 million into a deep space probe, shoot it into space, and cross our fingers.
If Congress would simply resolve the Thorium issue we could redirect a minimum of 35,000 tpy of Rare Earths currently dumped into tailings lakes into a U.S. based refinery. The waste from just a few existing, non rare earth mining operations in the U.S. could supply over 300% of our nation’s needs.
The Thorium could be utilized in a modern, safe, near-zero waste reactor and radically change our economy (to learn more see Youtube video “The Thorium Problem”).
Instead, our government is funding the transfer of Thorium MSR technology to China with taxpayer money…. Yes, that is correct: we are letting them keep the Rare Earth monopoly and are transferring them the future monopoly of energy via Thorium MSR technology.
riff_raff, News alert: Molycorp is now part of the Chinese monopoly (they will send all high value rare earth to China). On another level, I expect them to file for bankruptcy by year end, with China assuming control all of their assets.
"With China holding the vast majority of the world's rare earths resources,"
seriously Popsci? do some research before you post! stop misleading people and create hatred.
China does not hold the vast majority resources, the US do!
China hold something like 30% BUT produce 97% of the rare earth out put for the world's need!
The US Can produce it, but the environment cost is too great, that is why everyone want China to do the dirty work.
China and the Rare Earths
China is now the world’s second largest economy. It is a country rich in minerals and plays an important part in providing us with the lifestyle and gadgets we have come to take for granted in our modern world. In 2009, China supplied 97% of the world’s rare earths. However, in 2010, it introduced severe restrictions on its exports of these valuable elements, leading to a search for deposits of rare earth minerals in other countries.
The rare earths are a group of metals which occur mainly as oxides in the earth’s crust, hence the name ‘earth’, which is an old name for a metal oxide. However, they are not as rare as was originally thought. Some of them are more abundant than lead, while cerium is about as abundant as copper. However, the problem is that they have very similar chemical properties; they occur together in the same rocks and are extremely difficult to separate from one another, making them very expensive to isolate. But for some purposes, it is not necessary to separate them completely. A mixture of rare earths, known by the German name of ‘mischmetal’ is extremely hard and has been used in cigarette lighter flints.
These elements are also known as lanthanides, as they are often found along with the element lanthanum, element number 57. This element gives its name to the fourteen elements which follow it in the periodic table, from cerium (no. 58) to lutetium (no. 71). The rare earths also include the two elements, scandium and yttrium, which are in the same group as lanthanum in the periodic table. They are so named because these elements were first discovered in the village of Ytterby, Sweden, in Scandinavia. Three other lanthanide elements are also named after the village, terbium, erbium and ytterbium.
The rare earth elements are all highly chemically reactive metals. The reason for the similarity in their chemical properties lies in the fact that, like lanthanum, their atoms all have three electrons in the outermost shell. (It is only the electrons in the outermost shells of atoms that are involved in chemical reactions.) However, the elements differ in the electron count in one of the inner shells of their atoms, so they have different physical properties. Some of these electrons are ‘’unpaired”, which gives the elements peculiar magnetic properties. Electrons are negatively charged particles and they appear to ‘spin’ on their axes. This creates a magnetic field. In the case of many other elements, and most compounds, the electrons are ‘paired’, which means that each electron has a partner, which spins in the opposite direction. The opposite spins create opposing magnetic fields, which cancel each other out. But whenever an atom or molecule possesses unpaired electrons, it gives rise to a phenomenon known as paramagnetism. If the tiny individual atomic magnets become aligned into so-called ‘domains’ in the solid state, the result is ferromagnetism, with which we are all familiar, as it occurs in common metals such as iron, cobalt and nickel. The magnetic properties of rare earth metals have applications in certain types of electric motors.
The lanthanides also have useful optical properties, due to the fact that the inner electrons in their atoms can interact with visible light as well as ultra violet (UV) radiation. Holmium, for example is incorporated into a special type of glass which is used as a UV shield in sunglasses. It is also used for calibrating laboratory instruments known as spectrometers, which are used for chemical analysis. Praseodymium and neodymium are also used in glass for UV shielding and in goggles used by welders. A mixture of these two elements is known as 'didymium' and is used in so-called 'didymium' glass filters. These two elements are so alike it was at one time thought that they were the same element, hence the name from the Greek, didymos, meaning 'twin'. Other rare earths are used in the phosphorescent materials which coat the inside of TV screens, to produce brilliant colours. Europium is used in red and blue phosphors, while terbium is used to produce a brilliant green. Lanthanum itself is used by the petroleum industry, as a catalyst in the 'cracking' of long chain hydrocarbons to make the more useful short chain molecules. These uses of rare earths are now well established.
The development of new technology in recent years has given rise to increased demand for rare earths metals. They are used in hybrid motor cars, iPods, smart phones and wind turbines. They even have military applications; samarium is used in military guidance systems. The Toyota Prius contains about 4kg of these elements; 2.5kg of neodymium in its battery and 1.5kg of lanthanum in its drive motor. Since China has restricted the amount of rare earths it exports to other countries, both to conserve its own supplies and to favour Chinese manufacturers, this has led to concerns among Japanese car makers. To ensure the security of its own supply, Toyota has plans to develop a new rare-earth mine in Vietnam. With the increase in demand, prices of some of the rare earths, particularly neodymium (symbol Nd, atomic number 60) have risen sharply. If there is going to be a major increase in the number of electric cars being produced, more supplies of lanthanides will be required. At present, the global demand is about 125,000 tonnes per year. It may rise to 225.000 by 2015. To help supply this expected demand, a new mine is to be opened in Western Australia. In the US, there are plans to re-open a mine at Mountain Pass, in the Mojave Desert, in California. This mine was first opened in 1949, when significant levels of radioactivity were detected by uranium prospectors there. However, it did not yield the expected uranium deposits which were being sought as nuclear fuel during the cold war. Instead, rare earths were found, which often occur together with radioactive elements. The mine was worked for about half a century, but rare earth metals did not command such high prices at the time and it ran into environmental problems, so the mine was closed in 2002.
Re-opening this mine and developing new mines will give rise to a number of environmental concerns. Some of the waste material will be radioactive and will need to be disposed of carefully, perhaps by burying it deep within the mine from which it came. But will this be safe, or having been disturbed, will the genie have got out of the bottle? Then there is the business of separating the lanthanides from one another. At present, large quantities of acid are used, mainly to separate cerium, which is the most abundant of the lanthanide elements. This gives rise to toxic tailings ponds. The separation of the other elements requires different methods such as ion-exchange and solvent extraction.
The study of the lanthanide elements has been rather neglected in most general chemistry courses up to now. However, it could prove to be a fruitful avenue of research. It is over 100 years since Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize In chemistry for her painstaking work in using classical chemical methods to extract a minute amount of radium from huge quantities of uranium ore and for examining its properties. Who knows, perhaps the 21st century may see an award being made for an environmentally friendly way to extract and separate rare earth elements from their ores?
I mean this in a most positive way: do you wear a neck brace or tape Popsicle sticks around your neck to hold that big brain up. You are one smarty. Thank you for all the good information! ;)
Thanks for your input Ms Franklin.
It is not a problem of finding the materials. It's an industry-political problem. If China made 95% of the worlds "cars", then they would have leverage in terms of price and product availability. If you didn't like them having this leverage, you simply have to make your own. Gaining this type of leverage is very advantageous for the supplier and in America, it is called a Monopoly, and it is illegal.
America has it's own supplies of rare earths, but it does require a mining industry to do that. Due to environmental regulations COMBINED with China flooding the market with a cheaper source, mining for rare earths became unprofitable in this country. This was a CALCULATED MOVE by China, to shutter the operations of it's American competitor. But doing so LEVERAGED China's sources as the only world source.
Now, we will all bow to China for our rare earth needs and transfer more of our wealth to their hands, for years to come, while we wait for the American rare-earth mining industry to be re-built, which doesn't just happen overnight!
Everytime China wants to gain an advantage is any particular industry, they simply flood the market with their cheap crap. Then, when the market chooses the cheaper China alternative, the competitors lose business and shutter up their operations. Then, when China is the sole supplier, up goes the price, and THEY reap the rewards of having a competitor-less marketplace that has a high-demand for products you can only get from them.
It's essentially a war, fought on the economic and industrial level.